The Perils of “Creative Documentary Photography”

The Perils of “Creative Documentary Photography”

Eyebrows were raised in the photojournalism community yesterday when World Press Photo  – an industry stalwart – announced the creation of a new contest that would “not have rules limiting how images are produced.” The contest would allow staged and manipulated images – dubbed “creative documentary photography” – in support of contemporary storytelling.

One the one hand, this is outrageous. It’s more than a matter of semantics to reappropriate the meaning of “journalism” and “documentary.” Lives have literally been lost in the pursuit of the ideals espoused by these words.

But let’s take a step back and acknowledge that the contest is still unnamed and that “creative documentary photography” is, perhaps, a working title for an unfinished product.


In film and literature, creative license has been exercised for decades. “Historical fiction” and “based on a true story” are compact and effective means of storytelling. They might have an air of truthiness to them, but that doesn’t mean their efficacy as storytelling devices is diminished.


The 2016 Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, “Spotlight,” is a perfect example. Although the writers and director took artistic liberties in telling the true story of the Boston Diocese sex scandal, the end result provided both compelling entertainment and increased awareness of a notorious issue that has plagued the Catholic Church for decades (and by the way, had the support of the actual journalists including Marty Baron, now Editor of the Washington Post).

Of course, the film wasn’t presented as a documentary, but audiences are familiar with this form of storytelling and sophisticated enough to recognize its limits. In other words, they are visually literate with the genre. They might not know precisely what is and is not historically accurate, but the director’s vision and end goal can be realized nevertheless.

Strangely, we don’t really have such a vocabulary in photography. We have the “editorial” and the “staged narrative,” but neither of those forms are used in a way the film/literature counterpart might be – at least not insofar as the documentary community is concerned (insert snarky McCurry joke here).

Documentary photographers are a passionate bunch. They work incredibly hard, often with paltry compensation, to cover topics that are important to them. They sometimes use photo contests as a way to shine a spotlight on issues that are unknown or ignored by the public, and treasure the increased exposure that winning can provide. There is no effective storytelling without an audience.

You might remember the viral video “Kony 2012” which garnered over 100 million views and raised awareness of a virtually unknown warlord, Joseph Kony, who terrorized swaths of the Congo and the Central African Republic. The video was criticized for inaccuracies and oversimplification of the issues, but from a storytelling perspective it was a massive success that led to military intervention. At the time it was released, I spoke at an Illinois Press Photographers Association event and rhetorically asked why hadn’t a photojournalist created such a viral sensation? Are we so boxed in by convention that we allow ourselves to be lapped by other creative enterprise? Numerous ethical (and moral) discussions will undoubtedly emerge from the discussion, but that is a good thing.

Time will tell whether World Press Photo can successfully navigate and perpetuate “creative documentary photography.” I hope that they rethink the name, but I also hope that photographers consider the rapidly evolving landscape of storytelling and how this experiment may prove to be a valuable one for the industry.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. Lars Boering at 10:00 am

    Thanks for the article Allen. As you say, “creative documentary contest” is a working title for an as yet unnamed contest.

    Let’s put this in context.

    World Press Photo is best known for the annual photo contest and the digital storytelling contest (which, by the way, we have renamed because we think it is time to retire the term ‘multimedia’). Those contests have a great heritage and a great future, and are about visual journalism that is accurate and fair. The World Press Photo contest has a strict code of ethics, clear visual guidance on what is and is not acceptable, the most rigorous verification process, and rewards single frame, single exposure pictures. All that remains and is unchanged from the 2016 edition, which we did overhaul in response to previous issues.

    We recognise, though, that visual storytellers are pursuing new ways of communicating with photography, and we want to connect with and reward these developments. The intention is to reward to those image makers using photographic techniques to tell an actual story, but using creative techniques in constructing, processing and presenting still images. It might be work that combines multiple frames – from double exposures through to images that are the sum of dozens if not hundreds of frames, such as Xavi Bou’s photographs that reveal the flight of birds or Nick Nichols’ shot of a giant redwood tree. Chris de Bode’s “Exodus,” on Bangladeshi migrant workers fleeing Libya in 2011, and Eric Bouvet’s “Chaos” series from Ukraine are also great examples. We have seen interesting work using thermal imaging technologies. And we have seen work – such as Christina de Middel’s “Afronauts” – where scenes are constructed but tell an actual story related to the world. There are many other examples. But it’s essential to note here that this competition will not reward fakes, pictures which someone pretends are real but are made up and designed to mislead the audience. The photographers who will be rewarded by this contest will be open about their purpose and transparent about their processes.

    What we will have here, then, is the photographic equivalent of what people in the text world call literary journalism or creative non-fiction, in line with the classic definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” In all other fields of the arts, from cinema to literature, there is no debate about the validity of such an award. In literature, the influence of non-fiction books is just as big as the influence from fiction books. So why can’t it be similar in photography? The new contest – which is completely separate from the existing annual World Press Photo contest – will recognize work that has been out there for some time and is regularly published in newspapers, magazines and online. It is time to recognize this work through a new contest.

    This contest will not have rules limiting how images are produced, and will not have categories. The judges will make a range of awards, with recognition for work in social documentary, personal documentary, alternative imaging, innovative presentation, amongst others, always looking for the unexpected. We will be providing full details on this new contest in April 2017.

  2. Marcell Nimfuehr at 1:15 pm

    Dear Allan,

    I want to share an experience that adds to your postulate. I had published a photobook (with a good amount of accompanying text) about the internationaly unrecognized country of Transnistria. Its a breakaway republic from Moldova. Both countries are in a state of frozen conflict. Moldova leaning towards Europe and Transnistria towards Russia. There is massive propaganda from both the European and the Russian side (as well as from both parties). My photo-partner and I wanted to give the people and their plight a stage and also expose the level of propaganda. So we put ourselves on the side of the breakaway region and made a photographic case for their independence. But we wrote a subtitle on the cover of the book: “A propaganda book”. And if you look and read a little, you see the second layer. The people of Transnistria remain respected, but the brainwashing shimmers through. So far so good. What happened when we published the book? The Moldovan side issued a press release saying the enemy regime is having the West making PR-books. The Transnistrian government approached us and wanted to buy the rights of the book. And both parties didn’t see the obvious: it’s a propaganda book that exposes propaganda by overplaying it. But they took it at face value.

    My unproven guess is that film was a matter of entertainment in its infancy with the Nickelodeon culture. It took a while until feature films were accompanied by newsreels and it probably only got really taken serious with news on TV in the 1950ies. Film reached its first critical mass with the journey to the moon in 1903, a science fiction film. Even the first major feature-length documentary Nanook of the North was completely staged.

    Photography quickly substituted drawings in newspapers. So it was attached to “truth” and “reality” while film took longer to reach that.

    Plus when I started to make documentary films myself I realized that while film shares the frame with photography, it is much closer to the novel than to a photo. In every film you are forced to have a story arc. Except in avantgarde film the single frame has no value. Both media create an illusion of truth. You can expose the illusion but photography has less layers of illusion for missing the necessity of a story.

  3. Andrew Molitor at 10:24 pm

    Gene Smith.

    Documentary photography, telling a true story, an important story, has nothing to do with manipulation or rules.

    Presumably they will reward true and important stories, well told.

    I’m OK with that, personally, because I happen to think the current anti manipulation fad is largely bogus. One can lie with a crop as easily as an erasure. In the end, we simply have to trust (and verify).

  4. Bruno Stevens at 4:53 am

    David, with all due respect, some of us do have valid reasons to go back to the (not so distant) past. May I refresh your memory? You were part of the jury that gave a price to Troilo, yet as the professional you are, how could you not instantly spot how fabricated those pictures were?

    Here is a post I put in another thread this morning:

    “‘L’enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions’.

    Don’t you all remember how Donald, David and Lars pushed the work by Troilo at the WPP 2015? Even days after being presented with irrefutable proof that he had cheated and fabricated most if not every picture in his series? How most of you defended his “right to change and his modernity” against us “PJ’s in a dead end”?
    They reluctantly only changed the decision after I personally called Michele (the 2015 chairman of the jury) and presented her with all the proofs against Troilo’s fabrication and told her that we would make them public as well as the emails proving the WPP knew and didn’t want to change their decision.

    Then only WPP cancelled his award albeit on a technicality (location of one picture) rather than on ethical principles. And on the next day Lars published a larmoyant status on his personal FB page defending poor Troilo.

    I am all for progress and advances in storytelling, but I do feel that blurring the lines between ethical journalism and fiction such as those contests do is suicidal for our profession.”

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